Best children's books from the last 100 years
A formative and downright essential part of youth, children’s books fuel childhood imagination and education alike. It could even be said that, as adults, most of us still reflect fondly upon the titles that moved and inspired us when we were young. In turn, we share these books with our own children, preserving a tradition as old as storytelling itself. Consequently, the books and stories are renewed in terms of impact, so they remain as fresh now as they were when they first debuted. That’s the magic of children’s literature.
Who would know what makes for the best children’s books better than our nation’s librarians? Indeed, between their passion for the written word and constant exposure to young readers, librarians might very well be the foremost authority for what’s hot and what’s not in the juvenile section. That brings us to our list of 100 great children’s books from the last 100 years, as picked by librarians. Using an article from the New York Public Library as our source, Stacker sorted the titles according to publication year. The result is a list that’s both nostalgic and relevant at once, with books that mean as much to us in retrospect as they do to our children moving forward. May you discover these titles all over again so that your kids might discover them for the first time.
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Author: A. A. Milne
In a true testament to the power of great characters, illustrations, and narratives, A.A. Milne’s “Winnie-the-Pooh” is as iconic today as it was nearly 100 years ago. Set in England’s Ashdown Forest, the book portrays a lovable, anthropomorphic bear with a craving for honey. Many of the story’s characters are based on stuffed animals and toys owned by Milne’s own son, who happened to be named Christopher Robin (another one of the book’s main characters). The majority of those toys are on display at the New York Public Library.
Millions of Cats
Author: Wanda Gág
In the late 1920s, American artist Wanda Gág’s eye-catching work caught the attention of a local editor, who then asked Gág to author and illustrate a children’s book. The result was “Millions of Cats,” about an old man and woman who literally inspire a massive cat fight while deciding which furry critter to take home. Featuring an iconic rhyming verse that begins with “Cats here, cats there, Cats and kittens everywhere,” this is one of the few picture books to win a Newbery Honor. It’s also the oldest American picture book still in print.
The Story of Ferdinand
Author: Munro Leaf
As classic now as it was upon its 1936 debut, “The Story of Ferdinand” involves a sheepish bull who’d rather sit and smell flowers than engage in bullfights. Written by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson, the book’s central story was completed in about forty minutes flat. Initial sales were sluggish, but word caught on by 1938, when the book began selling 3000 copies a week, knocking "Gone With the Wind" off the top of the bestseller list. Expanding upon the story’s simple premise was a 2017 animated movie adaptation.
Author: J R.R. Tolkien
A prequel to the famous Lord of the Rings Trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” (or “There and Back Again”) introduced readers to an extensive fantasy world complete with its own language and iconography. In the book, a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins embarks on a quest to slay an evil dragon named Smaug. When writing the timeless tale, Tolkien drew upon a variety of influences, including Icelandic linguistics and Norse folklore. The result is a saga that’s still hooking readers to this day, not to mention inspiring blockbuster films. It all started here.
Mr. Popper's Penguins
Author: Richard and Florence Atwater
Fans of “101 Dalmatians” should definitely check out the similarly themed “Mr. Popper’s Penguins.” It tells the story of a house painter who takes in a male and a female penguin, and soon finds himself surrounded on all sides by plump, aquatic birds. If you don’t feel like reading the book, you can always stream the 2011 film starring Jim Carrey as Mr. Popper, though it is a loose adaptation.
Author: Ludwig Bemelmans
Written and illustrated by Ludwig Bemelmans, 1939’s “Madeline” is about a small but daring young girl who lives in a Catholic boarding school in France. One of the book’s most memorable segments involves the young protagonist being rushed to the hospital to have her appendix taken out. As it turns out, that sequence was inspired by the author’s own experiences while recuperating from a car accident in the hospital. (A girl in the same room was undergoing appendix surgery.) The book would ultimately spawn its own franchise, including multiple sequels, an animated TV series, and a 1998 live action film.
Make Way for Ducklings
Author: Robert McCloskey
Winner of the Caldecott Medal, Robert McCloskey’s “Make Way for Ducklings” tells the story of two mallard ducks who decide to raise their children in the middle of a Boston park. The book makes for essential bedtime reading and therefore plays a significant role in youth development all over the world. As a token of their appreciation, readers of all ages used to send McCloskey pictures of ducks crossing the street on a frequent basis.
Author: Margret and H. A. Rey
Few picture book characters are more iconic than “Curious George,” an orphaned brown monkey who takes up residence with the Man in the Yellow Hat, and gets into all sorts of trouble. The book was written and illustrated by the husband and wife team of Margret and H.A. Rey, though Margret’s name was left off original first edition copies. Before settling down to write the Curious George series, the Reys were bouncing around the globe to escape the Nazis during WWII. It was an experience that perhaps infused the work with a genuine sense of adventure.
The Little House
Author: Virginia Lee Burton
Atop a small hill in the countryside sits a small, anthropomorphic house that’s truly built to last, though she begins to wither as urban roads and skyscrapers pop up around her. So goes the premise for Virginia Lee Burton’s “The Little House.” The book was based on the author’s own experiences growing up in a similarly sturdy, small house. In 1952, Disney adapted the book into a short film of the same name. The short featured cartoon skyscrapers that would reappear in the 1989 classic film, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”
The Little Prince
Author: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Before creating “The Little Prince,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was an aviator who once crashed his plane in the desert, with the experience leaving quite an impression. In his subsequent book, a stranded pilot similarly crashes in the desert, where he encounters a little boy from a distant planet. Excluding religious works, this is the most translated book of all time.2018 All rights reserved.